7 Things You Probably Didn't Know About The History Of The Pill
In 2015, we celebrated the 55th anniversary of of the birth control pill's availability on the market, but it hasn't all been streamers and birthday cake — the Pill has had a rocky road since it was first introduced. From deadly side effects in early versions to huge opposition from the Catholic Church, the pills we take for granted have been on a long journey to become so ubiquitous, and may one day be eclipsed by other methods of birth control, particularly IUDs. But there are aspects of the Pill's convoluted history that can surprise even the most jaded advocate of reproductive rights, from its tie to grain harvesters to the fact that the primary doctor behind it found a way of producing fatherless bunny rabbits. Science, you've gotta remember, is incredibly weird.
Today, the Guttmacher Institute estimates that 16 percent of all American women between 15 and 44 use the Pill, and that it's the most popular contraceptive choice in the country. The Pill has lots of benefits: it's low-impact in most cases, comes in several forms (from the combined to the mini-pill), can be stopped without fuss, doesn't damage fertility, and only involves remembering to take one pill every day. A world without it seems a bit unimaginable, but before its invention everybody was messing around, secretly and illegally, with douching, condoms, and diaphragms. The Pill has made life a lot easier since, and it's changed the world in the process.
Here are seven things you might not know about the development of the modern contraceptive pill. Get ready for some NSFW crocodile dung, racism, eugenics, and yams.
1. The Concept Isn't As Modern As It Seems
Contrary to assumption, before the Pill, women weren't just having babies willy-nilly without any attempting at controlling their own fertility. Contraceptive substances in particular have been the subject of a lot of experimentation throughout history, but before the Pill, most of them were focused on spermicides or on somehow impeding the sperm on its journey to the egg.
The Kahun Papyrus shows that the ancient Egyptians used crocodile dung pessaries as spermicides, while Casanova, the famous lover himself, records the use of halved, squeezed lemons placed over the penis as a contraceptive attempt. (It's not known whether it was just a physical barrier to the sperm or if they thought lemon juice would somehow interfere with the sperm, though. As it happens, citric acid is pretty bad for sperm, so this uncomfortable method may have made a bit of sense.) And TIME reports that in ancient Persia, women were told to jump backwards nine or ten times after sex to "dislodge" any sperm that might be on its way to an egg. Needless to say, none of these methods were massively effective.
2. They Were Created After A Meeting At A Dinner Party
There were several key players in the creation of the modern contraceptive pill, but two of the main ones, contraceptive advocate Margaret Sanger and doctor and endocrinologist Dr. Gregory Pincus, were introduced at a dinner party in 1951. Pincus would go on to develop the first hormonal contraceptive pill, encouraged by Sanger, and test it with Dr. John Rock. This wasn't exactly a chance meeting that set fate ablaze, though; the dinner party was organized by Abraham Stone, then vice-president of Planned Parenthood America, which had been established in 1916 by Sanger and two others. They may never have met before, but they were interested in the same things.
3. Wheat Is Partially To Thank For Its Creation
The pharmaceutical industry hasn't changed all that much: the development of any new drug is reliant on phenomenal amounts of money. And much of the capital for the development of the first version of the Pill came from Katharine McCormick, an American heiress and philanthropist who had inherited a fortune from her husband's family's business: primarily agricultural machines and wheat harvesters. Yep, industrial farm machinery is to thank for your birth control.
4. The First Progesterone Was Synthesized From Sasparilla & Yams
One of the key things standing in the way of oral contraceptives was how to synthesize hormones cheaply and effectively, so that they could be distributed in pill form. Fortunately, researchers were on the case. In 1939 a researcher called Russell Marker had found a way to synthesize them from sarsaparilla, but later improved on it with a synthesis from Mexican yams. Marker's company in Mexico, Syntex, refined the process for years, until in 1951 the chemist Carl Djerassi and other Syntex scientists produced a synthetic progestin that could be taken orally.
5. The First Trials Were Held On Mentally Ill Patients & Women In Puerto Rico Without Their Consent
This is one of the most controversial bits of the history of the Pill. It seems that the testing done by Rock and Pincus to make sure the Pill's early form worked was seriously problematic, both in the U.S. and out. Alongside a Massachusetts study of 50 volunteers, in 1954 Pincus and Rock also tested the Pill on 28 mentally ill asylum patients without their consent.
But it was the Pill's wider testing in Puerto Rico that's drawn more fire since. According to Planned Parenthood, the decision to do trials in Puerto Rico was taken because of Puerto Rico's permissive birth control laws, the illiteracy of many of the subjects (which meant they could test whether the Pill could be understood if you couldn't read), the stability of the population, and the high need for contraception in the community. The problem? The Pill trial was dangerous and caused nasty side effects in the Puerto Rican women being tested. Dr. Edris Rice-Wray reported back to Pincus and Sanger from her position monitoring the trials that they were too unsafe to be used, but Pincus dismissed the concerns and went forward anyway.
6. The Pill's Progenitor Had 17 Siblings
Margaret Sanger, who pushed for the Pill's development and distribution, was a complicated woman. Besides her very prominent feminist beliefs about women's right to birth control, she also associated herself with the negative eugenics movement, including a statement in 1920 that "birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives." But her commitment to birth control itself was partly born from her own experience as a small child, one of an enormous Catholic family with no contraceptives available.
Sanger's mother had died at the age of 50 after bearing 18 children, only 11 of them born alive. Sanger reportedly told her father over her mother's grave, "You caused this; Mother is dead from having too many children."
7. The Key Scientist Involved Created Fatherless Rabbits
Gregory Pincus, before he met Sanger, had already established himself as a scientist to watch because of an interesting scientific innovation: he managed, in 1939, to "fertilize" rabbit eggs that in fact never saw a sperm, and when implanted into a womb managed to be born and mature normally. "FATHERLESS BUNNIES ARE BORN TO VIRGN RABBIT," LIFE magazine reported breathlessly, but Pincus soon moved on to synthetic progesterone and suppressing ovulation, and the rest is history.
Image: Ortho tricyclen/Wikimedia Commons, Giphy